China’s Mekong River hydropower impacts
Mekong River history and geography[edit | edit source]
The Mekong River in Southeast Asia runs some 4,909 kilometers, spanning six countries between the Tibetan Plateau in China where melting snows feed the river, to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and the river’s end at the South China Sea. For 15 years, economic and territorial issues on the oft-disputed sea have been negotiated among China and the ten ASEAN states, which include all six of the Mekong nations. Yet, as analysts with Global Risk Insights argued in July 2017, the Mekong may create far more friction.
That’s because the river is a critical asset to the lives of some 284 million people who live in the Mekong region, coming from 400 different ethno-linguistic groups. From China’s highlands and across three of its provinces, the Mekong – known as the Lancang in upper China – flows into Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand and Cambodia before crossing Vietnam to the sea. The basin is home to 97 percent of the population in Lao PDR, 90 percent of Cambodians, and more than a third of the Thai people, in communities that have relied for centuries on the Mekong for fishing, farming and related livelihoods, food security and water.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement, signed by four of the countries, calls on neighboring nations to work cooperatively and sustainably on river projects and issues that ultimately affect them all. Yet putting the principle into practice at times has proved elusive, and non-signatory China is the greatest threat of all.
China’s hydroelectric dams[edit | edit source]
On October 30, 2017, the Chinese government gave a one-day notice to the Mekong River Commission of an emergency water release from Jinghong Reservoir officials said was “aimed to ensure power grid security.” The hydropower dam there, built by China Huaneng Group, became operational in 2008 with a generating capacity of 1,750 MW. It was the third such dam on the Mekong at the time, touted for its economic benefits and as a joint project with power-hungry Thailand, the first such venture of its kind.
That China notified the river body at all proves something of a breakthrough. The MRC, with offices in Phnom Penh and Vientiane, represents the four Mekong Agreement nations and has welcomed China as a dialogue partner since 1996. Yet unilateral decisions by the rapidly developing Chinese put the entire Mekong Basin at risk. The Jinghong is just one of seven plants built on China’s side of the border, on the river’s upper basin, and there are plans for 20 dams that are essentially turning the mighty Mekong into a series of river locks that China controls. It’s another assertion of Beijing’s regional hegemony, critics say, and presents a security risk to the international community on the Mekong but also other rivers.
In 2016, the Vietnamese found themselves pleading with China to release water from Jinghong – the same hydropower dam in Yunnan Province – to help alleviate one of the worst Mekong Delta droughts on record. China did, while state media framed the decision as “help” for Vietnam’s farms and fisheries affected by drought and climate-related saltwater intrusion in the nation’s key rice paddies and fields.
China has always refused to join the MRC as a member and partner, yet if it decides on an emergency release it deigns to “notify” the MRC; China will so announce, too, if it decides “to release an emergency water supply,” as Beijing phrases it, to downstream countries from Jinghong. "If only water released from China's Jinghong dam could arrive here soon," a desperate Vietnamese told Xinhua during the drought, as if it were all but forgotten that China’s dams were what changed river flow in the first place.
Instead of joining with the MRC, Beijing launched a new Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Framework in March 2016. Beijing stresses equality and consensus, but analysts see an advance of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy in China’s backyard and a mechanism for controlling complaints from downstream.
Worse still, China sets an example for the other nations in the basin. “If China fails to seek consensus with downstream countries surrounding its dam building and hydropower development, why shouldn’t other countries do likewise?” asks Victor Fernandez of the Water Policy Institute based in Singapore.
Southeast Asia’s Mekong dams[edit | edit source]
The problem is, the other Mekong River nations are doing the same thing and it’s creating the same strife – sometimes with Chinese money. In northeastern Cambodia, the new Lower Sesan II Dam hydropower plant opened in 2017 after Beijing paid for the USD$800 million facility. It was opposed by activists trying to protect 5,000 indigenous people forcibly relocated from the construction area, and by scientists who warned in 2012 of harm to river ecosystems and the rich biodiversity of the Mekong. The upstream impacts would reach Lao PDR and Thailand; the downstream costs hit the Vietnamese delta.
China has promised a $300 million Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Fund to finance small- and medium-sized projects in the six Mekong countries, and a $10 billion credit line alongside preferential loans for infrastructure and industrial projects. Yet the environmental and political costs remain staggering.
On the mainstream Mekong, China’s series of five hydropower dams ends with the Jinghong inside its borders – although there’s a new one after that, the Ganlanba, under construction. Its planned capacity is just 155 MW, and Beijing makes no secret of the fact that it’s mostly for controlling downstream flow.
Beyond China’s border, though, are nine more dams planned on the Mekong proper and as of June 2017, two that are already under construction. The Don Sahong in Lao PDR poses an incalculable threat to people, wildlife and the planet, but despite the pleas of research scientists and community activists the government officials gave it the go-ahead all the same. What makes the Don Sahong an even more bitter and contentious project is that – just like China – the Laotians unilaterally decided to build it without the consensus of the MRC agreements. It’s just 1.5 kilometers from the Cambodian border.
While the Don Sahong is being built by Mega First Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian firm with no prior hydropower dam construction experience, the Xayaburi dam farther to the north in Lao PDR is under contract to Thai firm CH Karnchang. Six Thai firms are financing the project, and Thailand plans to buy 95 percent of the generated electricity from their Laotian neighbor. It’s a lucrative project, and it’s moving forward without the MRC-facilitated consultations with Cambodia or Vietnam. It’s also moving forward despite the fact that some energy experts in Thailand said Xayaburi isn’t needed to meet their demands.
Concerns that China’s example damaged the cooperative decision-making vision for the Mekong River nations and their future appear well-founded, as does the alarm over long-term environmental impacts.
Environmental and economic impacts[edit | edit source]
Development of the hydroelectric power dams in the upper basin, on China’s side of the Mekong River, shows clear macro-level impacts. A February 2017 study published in the Journal of Hydrology found changes since 2011, with impacts some 2,000 kilometers away in Cambodia. “Despite the transboundary significance of the impacts,” the authors said, “there is no public information on the hydropower operations or on the already observed downstream discharge impacts since the completion of the largest dams.” That makes it hard to gauge how communities, ecosystems and wildlife are affected.
The Mekong basin is important for preserving biodiversity, with the greatest number of discrete ecoregions in mainland Asia. There are 20,000 plant species, 430 mammals, 1,200 birds, 800 reptiles and amphibians, and around 850 fish species. The river’s waters feed 54 million hectares of forest in the lower Mekong basin, but they also feed millions of people who rely on the river for food and water. In Lao PDR, the dams bring a ban on traditional fishing traps and a loss of culture as well as the harvest.
Arguably, it’s the downstream countries of Cambodia and Vietnam who suffer most – but the unknown consequences, on a river that traverses so many topographies and nations, may be just as sobering. China’s first large Mekong dam, the Manwan, didn’t open until 1994 so there’s no long data timelines. What scientists do know is that the Mekong Delta is one of earth’s most vulnerable regions for rising sea levels and other climate impacts, proving to some that China is all talk on any global climate leadership.
Regional geopolitics and conflict[edit | edit source]
China’s power overshadows any debate or dialogue among Mekong River nations, as it does elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Yet Beijing’s control over Mekong Basin development and diplomacy goes hand-in-glove with its control over the water itself. China has the capacity to divert 28 percent of the Mekong’s annual flow and store it within its borders. Hydropower is second only to coal in China, which might otherwise be a welcome clean-energy shift if not for the security and subsistence risks to those living downstream. Yet China has its own water shortage – available water per person is one-third of the global average in 2017 – and a tighter grip on resources will create conflict for downstream nations.
China is posing a severe security risk to its neighbors, and that’s terrifying to 1.2 million Cambodians who rely on a freshwater lake fed by the Mekong River, the 71 percent of rural Laotians who rely on Mekong River fishing for food, and the millions who rely on Vietnam as the planet’s third-largest producer of rice. The Mekong issue is breeding instability and insecurity as the world looks elsewhere.
“As each of these countries races to industrialize, they are increasingly at odds over how the river ought to be managed,” notes analyst Jeremy Luedi. “One of the few things downstream nations can agree on is that China is the biggest threat to them all.”